Mark Levinson No.26 preamplifier & No.20 monoblock power amplifier

I must admit, right from the outset, that I find reviewing electronic components harder than reviewing loudspeakers; the faults are less immediately obvious. No preamplifier, for example, suffers from the frequency-response problems endemic to even good loudspeakers. And power amplifiers? If you were to believe the older generation of engineers—which includes some quite young people!—then we reached a plateau of perfection in amplifier design some time after the Scopes Monkey Trial but well before embarking on the rich and exciting lifestyles afforded us by Reaganomics. (In the UK, it is generally felt by these people that the date coincided with the introduction of Quad's first current-dumping amplifier, the 405, in 1976.)

Yet, though I can quite happily live with any number of loudspeakers (I have my favorites, of course), I am extremely fussy about the amplifiers that grace my system. Perhaps because it acts as a bottleneck on the signal, the quality of an amplifier or preamplifier is far more important than that of a loudspeaker when it comes to preserving or destroying the musical values of the signal. This would appear to be heresy in the US where, to judge by the letters I receive, large, complicated, expensive loudspeaker systems are often driven by relatively inexpensive, modestly performing electronics, the rationale behind this being that, to quote one correspondent, "It is the loudspeakers that produce the sound, therefore they are where the majority of the budget should be allocated."

I feel, however, that this wastes much of the money spent on loudspeakers—the amplifier will be incapable of extracting the performance from the loudspeakers that the customer has paid for. In my experience, the opposite philosophy is nearer the truth—you should always spend more on your amplification than you do on your loudspeakers. Consider the Quad 405 mentioned above. Ten years ago, in the summer of 1978, I took part in a series of blind listening tests organized for HFN/RR by Martin Colloms, in which the panel tried to distinguish by ear between two solid-state power amplifiers—a Quad 405 and a Naim NAP250—and a tube amp, a Michaelson & Austin TVA-1. The result, as so often is the case with blind testing, was inconclusive, the panel, overall, being unable to distinguish between one amplifier and another (footnote 1). (Though examining the results on an individual basis indicated that perhaps one or two listeners had, in fact, done so—at least on those tests. Whether they would do so again is open to question.)

Having been involved in the tests and seen how carefully Martin had organized them, I believed in the results. In the words of the Bob Dylan song, "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now!" I sold the Stan Curtis-designed Lecson AP1X amplifier (footnote 2) I had been using with great enjoyment until that moment and bought the significantly cheaper Quad 405.

Now, however, though the sound was the same, the magic was gone. Changing loudspeakers, from Gale GS401s to Rogers LS3/5As, then to old Quads, changed the sound but didn't bring back the depth of musical enjoyment. Listening to records started to play less of a role in my life—until I replaced the 405 with a TVA-10 tube amplifier two years later.

The lesson was duly learned. Whether or not they can be told apart under blind conditions, I am now very fussy about the amplifiers I use.

Mark Levinson No.26
The No.26 is the first Mark Levinson preamplifier to be designed by Madrigal Audio Laboratories. Only the third wholly new component to come from ML since the company was taken over by Madrigal, the No.26 was launched at the 1988 WCES and consists of a neat, black-finished preamplifier chassis with a remote power supply, connected via a lead with 9-pin connectors on each end. The power supply must be placed away from the preamp chassis, or, if it must be next to it, to its right, away from the phono circuitry. The preamp chassis has a sculptured, black anodized, 3/8"-thick front panel, with the labeling inset in white in traditional Mark Levinson style. Milled circular counterbores recess all the knobs. The main controls, level and input select, utilize the regular ML-style flanged knobs and occupy the center of the faceplate. To their left and right are triads of smaller knobs, to control the subsidiary functions.

Footnote 1: HFN/RR, November 1978, p.114.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: The Lecson equipment was one the few examples of the maxim: "If it looks good, it will sound good."—John Atkinson